The Language of the Birds - CODAworx

The Language of the Birds

Submitted by Brian Goggin

Client: San Francisco Arts Commission

Location: San Francisco, CA, United States

Completion date: 2020

Artwork budget: $350,000

Project Team

Design, fundraising, community organizing

Dorka Keehn

Keehn on Art

Sructural Engineer

Ray Pugliesi


Stuctural Engineer

Andrew Scott


Lighting Design

Mike Hollibough

Holly Solar

Chief scientist, solar advisor, fundraising and site lead

David Shearer

Light pattern programmer

Mark Lottor


Karl Gillick

Fabricator, performer at opening

Simon Cheffins


A site-specific sculptural installation for a public plaza at the corner of Broadway, Grant and Columbus Streets in San Francisco.

Historically, the “Language of the Birds” was considered a divine language birds used to communicate with the initiated. Here, a flock of books takes off from the plaza to fly the urban gullies of the city. The fluttering books have left a gentle imprint of words beneath them. These serendipitously configured bits of local literature reveal the layering of culture, nature and consciousness.

Language of the Birds is a flock of twenty-three sculpted illuminated books, which appear to have just taken flight from the plaza like pigeons scared up by a passerby. Appearing to be in motion, the books have flown open creating various wing positions with the pages and bindings. The entire artwork appears to be in motion with each book holding its position as a bird does in a flock.

Each unique book is fabricated in frosted white translucent polycarbonate. The sculptural elements are suspended from a geometric web of stainless steel aircraft cables. At night LED lights embedded in the books create visual patterns, at different times one might see the flock subtly pulsing or displaying a spectacular zoetropic effect.


We gathered input from community members, local arts organizations, and merchants associations through well-attended public meetings. Members of the Chinese community expressed concerns about potential obstructions to the Feng Shui of the plaza, which influenced the final design. We also included specific recommendations for texts drawn from the rich literary history of the neighborhood into the artwork. The community collaboration brought forth unexpected considerations and contributions that both informed the artwork and contributed to its success.


Goggin conceptualized of the piece during a residency at the Djerassi foundation. While watching swallows move through the air, he observed how they came together to create fleeting compositions. The image of flying books emerged from the idea of culture and nature interconnecting in unexpected ways. Influenced by the literary genre, magic realism, Goggin's sculptures bring new life, movement and meaning to familiar objects.
Goggin and Keehn created the design of the plaza floor in the Atrium of SFMOMA. Retaining the original font of the texts, individual words from chosen phrases were cast from the third floor gallery of the museum. Words fluttered down 60 feet landing on a paper replica of the plaza thus determining their resting place in the final artwork. Influenced by practices like reading tea-leaves and Japanese gardening techniques. The words intersect in ways that allow for new unique interpretations and meanings.